Marianne Bresaluer, portrait of Annemarie Schwarzenbach

The Faerie Meme

Nikolas and I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Inception last week. Maybe it was the hype that preceded the release of the film, or the expectation created by pictures like Memento and The Dark Knight, but it was a disappointment for both of us. The film started out fine, the first twenty minutes or so an engrossing puzzle that introduced some intriguing notions, such as the one which gives the film its title—the implantation of an idea in a person’s subconscious. But it then quickly settled down into a smart variation of the classic action-heist film, laden with (admittedly spectacular) visual effects of characters fighting it out in zero gravity and a city folding over itself like a Murphy bed, and replete with chase scenes, shoot-outs and an attention-getting score, all of which in itself isn’t that bad and certainly makes for good entertainment. But it was spoiled by the heavy-handed exegesis that Nolan spoon feeds the audience via the Q&A exchanges between dream-thief Cobb and his dream-architect, I-just want-to-understand-Ariadne. My friend Georgia told me she wanted to see the movie again, because she didn’t really “get it” all the first time; I told her she needs to hone her note-taking skills. And not take the movie too seriously, because true to the genre, the movie doesn’t always take itself too seriously. There was something very Die Hard-ish in the scene when Eames whips out a grenade launcher and says, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Maybe I laughed more because it was seeing it with Nikolas, who has little truck with pretension in any form, but lines like “Wait, whose subconscious are we going through exactly?” ache for a smirk.

Nolan’s notion of inception, the implanting of an idea in another subject’s dream, is very much similar to the concept of the meme that Richard Dawkins described in The Selfish Gene. Memes are units of cultural content that are passed from one mind to another. They can range from something as grand as a belief in one god or the symbol of the pentacle to a melody or a fashion like wearing your pants sagging below the buttocks or a habit of speech, like the intonation used by younger Americans to turn every other declarative sentence into a question, as if they needed the constant reassurance of their interlocutor in order to continue their narrative. Dawkins argues that the replication and propagation of these units follow similar principles of natural selection that govern the evolution of organisms. And indeed the film makes use of the notion of differential fitness and replication, as when Cobb asks, “What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious,” perhaps echoing Malcolm Gladwell, who argued in The Tipping Point that the rapid spread of certain ideas and behavior and even products can be best be understood as social epidemics, as “outbreaks of contagious disease” and who once said “a meme is an idea that behaves like a virus–that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.”

But Cobb is wrong, I think, when he says, “positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.” It’s the other way around. Think of the ease with which prejudice is disseminated and beliefs such as “Jews control the media” or “gay teachers recruit kids” take root. Witness the speed with which a disturbingly large proportion of Americans came to believe that Obama was not born in the United States or that Islam is fueled by hate. No, negative emotion trumps positive emotion every time, mostly because it finds a fertile environment of fear and insecurity and ignorance in which to grow and because the natural predators of these prejudices – critical thinking, scientific literacy, and knowledge — are relatively scarce in the population at large.

Inception, of course, this first implanting of the idea, is in itself not enough for the idea to truly take root. It must be reinforced, repeated, often in different guises and different voices. Repetition is the core of propaganda. And of verbal bullying, too, which in a way is just a cruel, forcible inception: a kid who’s repeatedly taunted will have a hard time not believing, if only on some subconscious level, that the names he’s being called have some element of truth to them.
I had a nemesis in junior high school who would call me a fairy. I had only been going to the school for a couple of weeks—we had just recently moved to the suburbs—when he started. I suppose I was somewhat androgynous-looking for my age, which nowadays might even be cool but back when I was a kid was something that set me apart in a very negative way. I was also kind of smart, which in the backwaters my parents had moved us to also marginalized me. Fairy. I hated the word, its connotations of effeminacy and weakness. The only fairy that came to mind was Tinkerbell. And who wanted to be compared to that?

I couldn’t imagine that being a fairy had anything to do with having sex with guys. Which wasn’t surprising, since I didn’t have much idea about sex in general. I still thought that a baby came into being when God placed it between the couple as they were in bed, lying on their side looking deep into each other’s eyes in a moment of intense intimacy and spiritual communion. I remember feeling proud and awfully grown up that I had figured this out, but it must have been implanted by one of my more religious minded teachers. Though I probably added the part about their looking into each other’s eyes. Maybe even the bed, too. Views like this did nothing to better my reputation in the schoolyard.

The use of fairy as an epithet has probably gone out of fashion, a meme on its way to extinction. Gay actors and athletes have come out, and there are even gay superheroes, a small number, yes, but enough to weaken the equation of gay and effeminacy. And even if it hadn’t, androgyny has itself become a meme with positive connotations, at least in some cultural ecospheres. Fairy may be gone, but I’m sure other epithets have taken their place. Like bacteria who develop antibiotic resistance there are certain memes, often the darkest and most hateful, which have proven themselves extraordinarily adaptive to the efforts of liberal society to combat them. Bullies will never be at a loss for words.

The photograph reproduced in this post is one of 160 works included in the Berlinische Gallerie’s major retrospective exhibition of Marianne Breslauer’s oeuvre. This remarkable portrait is of Breslauer’s close friend and fellow photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, whom she once described as “neither a woman nor a man, but an angel, an archangel”. A number of her photographs can be seen online at the Fotostiftung Schweiz.


2 responses to ‘The Faerie Meme

  1. Hi! I just stumbled across your interesting post as I was googling Schwarzenbach – and thought you might be interested to know that Seagull Books will now be bringing out her work in English (though I assume you read German!). Two of Schwarzenbach’s books (“All the Roads Are Open”, about her Afghanistan journey, and “Lyric Novella”) have just appeared in English, translated by myself and my colleague Lucy Renner Jones.

    There’s a Facebook page for the translations at


    • Thanks for the references! Both books seem fascinating. I also took a look at your site — you’ve done some very interesting translations — including the Christian Schad catalogue. It must be rewarding as a translator to “spend time”, as it were, with artists like Schwarzenbach and Schad.


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